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Hamish Macdonald is an NK News contributor and has previously worked at The Korea Herald and for the Australia Centre for Independent Journalism in Sydney.
A former North Korean diplomat, Thae Yong Ho, outlined his assessment of why Kim Jong Un has been adamant in his pursuit of a nuclear-tipped inter-Continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), during a speech in Washington D.C. on Tuesday.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Thae – who defected to South Korea in mid-2016 from the North Korean Embassy in the UK – outlined four key reasons for what he called Kim’s “obsession” to develop such capabilities.
These included Kim’s lack of initial legitimacy when first assuming power, inherent risks in pursuing economic reforms, concerns with the military and lessons learned from intervention in countries such as Libya.
Kim’s lack of legitimacy was due to a number of factors, Thae said. Firstly, unlike his father Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un was elevated to succeed the top position in North Korea on relatively short notice.
According to Thae, this top-down succession in conjunction with having spent a significant portion of his childhood isolated from North Korean society in Switzerland led to a lack of personal connections and training necessary to accede power with the full legitimacy.
“When Kim Jong Un first became the leader of North Korea in 2012, at his early stages he thought that the absolute authority of the power of the new leader of North Korea would naturally delegate to him. But what he experienced in his first few years…was not the case,” Thae said.
His being the third son of Kim Jong Il added to a perceived lack of legitimacy, which also resulted in a lack of enthusiasm among elites.
“He learned that whenever he convened a meeting … maybe 80 or 90 percent of the audience would sleep. So he learned that there was no enthusiasm – even in the elite group – on policy discussions,” Thae said.
Thae referenced the alleged purge of the then DPRK Minister of Defence Kim Yong Chol for closing his eyes during one of Kim’s speeches as a reaction to this concern. This transition period was one that influenced Kim;s decision to pursue nuclear weapons, Thae assessed.
The second key factor that influenced Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was the lesson Kim learned from his possible involvement in domestic economic policies prior to his elevation to the leadership.
Thae believes that Kim was involved in North Korea’s attempted currency reforms in 2009, which resulted in a significant failure.
Thae cites internal instructions issued by the Central Committee of the Worker’s Party of Korea from the beginning of 2009, which referenced an unnamed “Comrade General” that he believes was Kim Jong Un.
“I strongly believe that from January 2009 Kim Jong Un was involved in every process of important decision making,” Thae said.
“In November of 2009 (sic) all of a sudden (the) North Korean regime announced currency reform and … the currency reform failed within one month,” he added.
The currency reforms of 2009, which largely sought to strip accumulated cash savings that existed in the country, were quickly abandoned.
The attempt created significant economic chaos and once abandoned, resulted in the purge of the alleged architect of the reforms – Pak Nam Gi. Jang Song Thaek, the executed uncle of Kim Jong Un, was also subsequently blamed for the failed reforms.
“It was none other than Jang who wirepulled behind scene Pak Nam Gi, traitor for all ages, to recklessly issue hundreds of billions of won in 2009, sparking off serious economic chaos and disturbing the people’s mind-set,” a Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) report from 2013 reads.
“The lessons KJU learned from this currency reform is there could be no immediate solution through economic reform or it can be too risky,” Thae said.
“The second thing he learned is that it could be very dangerous to the society and system if he threatens the right of the economic survival of the normal population,” he added.
Thae also suggested that this is why Kim has – to an extent – allowed a continuing process of marketization in North Korea.
“That’s why even now the numbers of free markets in North Korea is increasing and Kim Jong Un so far hasn’t taken any decisive measures to stop this process.”
“To some extent, he even allowed the current process of marketization so that failure of reform left him with a very strong influence in deciding (to pursue) ICBMs,” he said.
MILITARY WOES AND THE ARAB SPRING
The former North Korean diplomat also claimed Kim was concerned about the DPRK military’s lack of preparedness and the possibility of outside intervention on humanitarian grounds.
Thae said Kim Jong Un toured the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea when he came to power and found the military forces there to be lacking.
“What he learned was the lack of preparedness for a possible war and (a lack of) of high spirit, corruption, obsolete conventional weapons,” Thae said.
The former DPRK ambassador said that ICBMs and nuclear weapons gave Kim Jong Un an additional level and motivator to control an unenthused standing army of 1.2 million soldiers.
Thae then went on to cite the Arab Spring and Libya in 2011 as a further example of why the North Korean leader gives top priority to the country’s nuclear program.
During the Arab spring, a NATO coalition bombed Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in response to government crackdowns of the uprising. The violent suppression led to condemnation from the UN and the international community.
“This had a strong influence on Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un,” Thae said, adding that world politics were different now and allowed for these kinds of forceful humanitarian interventions.
“In North Korea, there is no doubt that Kim Jong Un would stamp (an uprising) out, mercilessly. With his forces, with his tanks … he can do anything.”
Thae added that if the world became aware of violent crackdowns in the DPRK, the U.S. and the South Korean governments may have justification to take military action.
But the high ranking defector said that Kim believed that nuclear ICBM’s would be enough to diffuse the possibility of those types of interventions in North Korea.
“If (Kim) is equipped with ICBM tipped with nuclear (warheads) then he can prevent that kind of humanitarian intervention,” Thae added.
During a question and answer session following his remarks, the former high ranking North Korean diplomat said he believed that information and education were the keys to liberating the DPRK.
He said that the U.S. and South Korea should tailor make content to be distributed in North Korea, intended to educate the local population about relatively basic concepts such as their right to be paid for their labor.
Thae added that governments or even private companies could do more to distribute information within North Korea using rapidly evolving technologies like satellite internet and SD cards.
“I strongly believe if we educate the North Korean population we can change North Korea,” Thae said.
On a more personal note, the former ambassador to the UK said it was his children growing up in places like London that prompted him to break with the North Korean regime.
He said that he could not make them return to the DPRK, as they would have lost the freedom and opportunities associated with growing up outside of North Korea.